Vt. Education Fund facing $150M deficit, taxpayers brace for increases

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The Vermont state education fund is facing a projected total deficit of $150 million next year due to the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s currently unknown exactly how much of a hit each individual school district will take but it's likely taxpayers will have to foot some of that bill to address the deficit.

All Vermont schools are funded through the state education fund, which gets two-thirds of its revenue from property taxes.

The current projection predicts Burlington taxpayers would end up paying an increase of 22%. Burlington School District Superintendent Yaw Obeng says that number is not final and it could change as state economists continue analyzing the financial impacts. He says the school district is doing what it can to decrease the burden on taxpayers.

“We’re starting now to try to conserve some dollars that maybe we can help bring forward for next year and plan out our plan in terms of what remote learning or physically distancing will look like. So there will be some added costs,” Obeng said. “We have to start thinking about next year and how to prepare and how to balance the finances or to continue to provide programming and not bring on a significant cost to taxpayers.”

Obeng says Vermont will receive $30 million from the CARES Act, which will be distributed among all Vermont school districts. But that still leaves a $120 million gap

People WCAX News spoke to on Wednesday said 22% is a big ask.

“I was a little shocked because that’s a big hike,” said Martha Seagrave.

Kirk Rankin described it as “jarring.”

“It’s kind of an incredible amount to project for property taxes,” he said.

Vermonters are worried not everyone will be financially secure enough to chip in due to losing their jobs during the pandemic.

Some Burlington taxpayers say a 22% increase is a tall order but they plan to support it no matter what.

“Our schools have our students and our community’s best interest at heart and so I’m willing to take that seriously when they say 22% is what they need,” said Liz Kessler.

“I think we’re all going to need to make some sacrifices right now in a way that we’ve never had to before,” said Martha Seagrave.

Superintendent Obeng says there’s still a lot of uncertainty right now regarding what the average classroom will look like in the fall, how teachers’ salaries will be affected and what the classroom student-teacher ratio will be. He says they’re still seeking guidance from the state and will have a better understanding of the exact impacts in the next few months to a year.

Obeng says he doesn’t know the exact formula the state used to calculate the projected deficit but he said declining enrollment is likely one of the many factors.

“I would imagine it’s a combination of declining enrollments, disbursements around the state in terms of needs, and a change in a variable in numbers they use in the calculations, and trying to meet all the needs without the state,” he said. “That’s a question really that the state would be able to give you particular details in the shortfall.”

Scott administration officials didn’t return requests for comment on Wednesday when this article was published.